16

The Empty Palace

As Septimus was being pushed through the great gold doors, Gringe, the North Gate Gatekeeper, was crossing the low wooden bridge that led to the Palace.

“Mornin, miss,” said Gringe to Hildegarde, the sub-Wizard on duty at the door that morning.

“Good morning, Mr. Gringe,” Hildegarde replied.

“Say, you know my name!” exclaimed Gringe.

"Well, of course I do, Mr. Gringe.

Everyone knows the North Gate Gatekeeper. Can I help you with anything?"

"Well, see ... it's a delicate matter and I can't be long, seein' as I left Mrs. Gringe on the Gate and she's in a bit of a state and she don't like countin' the money at the best of times so I got to get back sharpish and, well..."

“So what can I do for you?” asked Hildegarde.

“Oh. Yes, well, I've come to see Silas Heap. If you don't mind.”

“No, I don't mind at all, Mr. Gringe. If you'd like to take a seat over there I'll send a messenger to find him.” Hildegarde went over to the Long Walk and rang a small silver handbell that sat on an ancient ebony chest. The tinkling sound echoed down the empty corridor.

Gringe felt a little overawed by the Palace; he could not quite believe that Silas Heap actually lived there. He eyed the line of fragile-looking gold chairs with little red velvet seats that Hildegarde had waved him over to and decided they looked troublesome, so he scuttled off to the darkest corner of the hall, where he had spied a comfortable-looking armchair. The armchair was almost hidden in the shadows and sitting on it, unseen by Gringe, was the Ancient ghost of Godric, ex-doorkeeper, slumbering peacefully.

“No!” Hildegarde's voice rang out sharply. “Not that seat, Mr. Gringe!”

Gringe, who had been about to sit down, jumped up as though something had bitten him.

“There's someone sitting on that one,” explained Hildegarde.

Gringe, who had never seen a ghost in his entire life and had no intention of starting now, shook his head sadly. It was true what they said; they were all bonkers up at the Palace. That was, of course, why it suited Silas Heap so well.

Gringe was relieved when Silas arrived with Maxie trailing behind him. Silas was a little flustered; he had been glad of an excuse to get away. He had left Marcia searching the Palace for Septimus, who appeared to have skipped an exam, much to Silas's admiration. At last his son was settling down and acting like a normal boy.

Gringe jumped up like a terrier after a rabbit. “Where is he?” he demanded.

“Not you as well,” said Silas. “I've just told Marcia, I don't know. Anyway, it's perfectly normal. Personally, I don't blame the boy for missing the odd exam.”

“What exam?” asked Gringe, taken aback.

"Well, it's not one I remember doing, that's for sure. Can't be that important.

Anyway, what do you want him for? Has he been playing chicken on the drawbridge? That's boys for you." Silas chuckled indulgently, remembering the times when he and a gang of friends would run up the drawbridge as it was being raised and see who could jump at the very last moment and not fall in the Moat.

“Chickens?” asked Gringe, who was getting the usual disconnected feeling of living on a different planet from Silas Heap. “ 'As Simon been pestering chickens now? Not that I'm surprised, mind. He'll cause trouble wherever he goes, that boy will.”

Now it was Silas's turn to be taken aback. “Simon?” he asked. “Chickens?”

Gringe was not to be put off. “Look 'ere, Heap. I just want to know where your Simon is.”

“Well, wouldn't we all?” snapped Silas.

“Yeah. My Rupert would be after him, that's for sure. He's very attached to 'is little sister, is Rupert, and now she's run off again with that good-for-nothin'—”

“Run off with Simon?” asked Silas, who was beginning to share Gringe's opinion of his eldest son as a good-for-nothing. “How?”

“I dunno how. If I knew how I would've stopped her.”

“Well, I'm sorry, Gringe,” said Silas, who was tired of being blamed for Simon's misdeeds, “but I don't know where Simon is. And I'm sorry that your Lucy is still mixed up with him. She's a nice girl.”

“Yeah, she is,” said Gringe, the wind taken out of his sails. Gringe and Silas stood awkwardly in the Palace Hall for a moment. Then Gringe said, "Well, I'll be gettin'

along then. Make sure you keep an eye on your Jenna, if that Simon's around."

“Jenna...” said Silas. “That's funny, I haven't seen her this morning...”

“No? Well, I'd go look for 'er if I was you. I'll be off then. See you later for a game, if you like. I can lend you a set of Counters.”

“I have my own set now, Gringe. No thanks to you,” said Silas, sniffing. And then, remembering Sarah's instructions, he said, "Look, why don't you come up here?

Make a change."

“Me? Up at the Palace twice in one day? Well, well.” Gringe chuckled. “Thank you, Silas.”

Silas walked Gringe to the Palace door. “See you later then,” said Gringe. And then after a moment's thought: “We don't have no chickens on the drawbridge. Not even one.”

“No. Of course you don't,” said Silas, soothingly. He waved Gringe good-bye; then he and Maxie set off in search of Jenna.

Silas had as little luck finding Jenna as Marcia was having. Marcia strode down the Long Walk with Alther in tow. She threw open each door in turn, yelling,

“Septimus? Jenna! ” and then slammed the door with a crash, until Alther felt he could stand it no longer.

“There's something going on here, Marcia,” he told her.

“Too right, Alther. Septimus? Jenna?” Crash!

“It's odd that Jenna is not around either.”

“Quite. Very odd. Septimus? Jenna?” Crash!

“Well, Marcia, I'll be off for a while. There's someone I want to talk to about it.”

“Talking is not going to do any good, Alther. I had enough talking this morning from that wretched Hermetic Scribe to last me a lifetime—and it's all a load of rubbish. I have to find Septimus now. Septimus? Jenna?” Crash!

Alther left Marcia to her doors and flew off along the Long Walk. When he got to the end, he floated through to the turret on the east end of the Palace; then he wound himself around the spiral stairs and stood for a quiet moment on the top-floor landing, gathering his thoughts. Alther looked a little nervous. He brushed down his robe, which of course made no difference to its appearance at all, and tugged at his beard. Then he took a deep breath and, in an unusually respectful manner for Alther, he walked slowly through the wall into the Queen's Room.

The Queen jumped up.

“Please excuse me, Your Majesty,” said Alther, rather formally, bowing his head slightly.

“I might do, Alther, I suppose,” replied the Queen with a half smile. "If you tell me what it is that brings you here. And for goodness' sake don't call me Your Majesty.

Just Cerys will do. I am only a Spirit like yourself. No more majesty for me, Alther."

She sighed.

“I am wondering if you have seen your daughter this morning, Cerys?” asked Alther.

The Queen smiled fondly. “Yes, I have indeed,” she replied.

“Ah. So she went to Zelda's, did she?”

“So you know about the Queen's Way too, Alther? It is no longer the secret it was.”

“Your secret is safe with me. Did Jenna take the young ExtraOrdinary Apprentice with her by any chance?”

“He was with her. A nice-looking boy. How much you know, as ever. I always was in awe of you. You seemed to understand ... well, everything.”

“So she did take Septimus with her? Well, that explains it. Thank you, Cerys. I shall go tell Marcia to stop driving everyone mad.”

“Dear, dear Marcia,” mused the Queen. “She saved my Jenna, you know.”

“I know,” said Alther. They were both silent for a moment, remembering the day when they both entered ghosthood, until Alther shook himself out of his reverie. “I'll be off then. Thank you.”

Alther turned to go and then said, “You know, Cerys, you should get out more. It's not good for you being stuck in this turret all the time. And you could think about Appearing to young Jenna. I know it's a big decision but...”

“I shall Appear when the Time is Right, Alther,” the Queen said, a little severely. “It is important for a Princess to discover things for herself and to prove herself worthy of becoming Queen—just as I had to. Meanwhile, I stay here to guard the Queen's Way from harm, as my mother did for me. And as Jenna will do for her own daughter.”

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